Council of Europe: House of Lords Members’ Contribution - Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 6:07 pm on 24th July 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative 6:07 pm, 24th July 2019

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the contribution of Members of the House of Lords to the work of the Council of Europe.

Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative

My Lords, I am delighted to have secured this Question for Short Debate and to welcome so many fellow Council delegates here. There was a similar debate in the House of Commons recently and there is something to be said for the delegations that travel from this House to the three international bodies, namely the Council of Europe, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and the OSCE, bringing their activities to the attention of the House from time to time.

All three bodies play a valuable role in projecting Britain’s image overseas. We have been a member of all of them from more or less their foundation and this House has always had representation. We are supposed to make up one-third of the delegation but, having carefully analysed the figures, we generally fall somewhat short of that, although not by a huge amount. However, we do not fall short of one-third of the financial contribution to the delegation. If we had a Whip on our Benches, I would ask him to look very carefully at whether we could get value for money.

The size and composition of the delegations are based on the size and balance of parties in the House of Commons, not Parliament as a whole. I am sure we will hear a bit about that from a speaker from one of the Benches not represented in the Council of Europe.

My first point is that the cost of the parliamentary assembly is incredibly low. The whole annual budget of the Council of Europe costs less than the European Union spends in one day, to keep the sizes in perspective. Also, the cost of the parliamentary assembly has now gone down from €17.5 million in 2017 to €14.7 million this year. It is projected to stay at that level for the next three years.

The fact is that there is now no allowance for inflation. I am told that the two main opponents of inflation are the United Kingdom and the far-right Government of the republic of Italy. I would very much welcome the Minister’s comments on what Britain is achieving in extending its reach and influence by joining the Government of Italy in seemingly blocking the ability of the Council of Europe to expand even in line with inflation.

Since 2010, the parliamentary assembly and the Council have consistently been cut back. Some 230 posts have disappeared over that period. This means that the European Court of Human Rights will inevitably be one of the sufferers, because you cannot spread all the cuts in just one department. I would like to ask Her Majesty’s Government what exactly they are trying to do with the Council of Europe. What is their vision for its future? It seems it is part of the eternal cutting back and resentment of anything called “foreign”. That is my first question.

The second matter I want to turn to is Russia. Russia was probably rightly excluded from a number of international institutions after its intervention in Crimea and various other actions that put it somewhat beyond the pale of acceptable behaviour. It is worth remembering that the dismemberment of the Soviet Union was an extremely messy affair. It left behind a number of problems, most of which are now to be found in the frozen conflicts we are trying to unravel.

If Russia was expelled from the Council of Europe, or chose to leave, it would mean that all Russian citizens would lose their right of access to the European Court of Human Rights. That was probably why, having weighed everything up, including the importance of the Council of Europe, there was an agreement in Helsinki to let Russia back into the parliamentary assembly. The British Government did not oppose that agreement; it is important to remember that. But almost as soon as it had been agreed, the Government started lobbying against the very agreement they had let through. At the last session we had the sight, which I found very unsatisfying, of the UK delegation leading the attempt to get Russia’s suspension continued. A group of members, led by Ukraine and the UK, with, as I put it, sundry disaffected members from former communist bloc countries, put down a large number of unhelpful amendments, all of which were defeated by margins of either 2:1 or 3:1, but rather than seeing sense and saying, after the first half a dozen or even 10, “Let’s accept that we’ll lose all of these”, we kept the Council of Europe sitting until after 1 am voting hopelessly on amendments. Virtually every member of every other western European delegation, including the Germans, the French, the Spanish and the Italians, were voting against the United Kingdom. We were in extraordinarily odd company.

I understand that we have now been invited to a meeting in Riga on Friday 6 September, described in the invitation letter as,

“the first like-minded meeting on further actions concerning the return of the Russian delegation to the PACE”.

In other words, this is a meeting designed to make life as difficult as possible. Rather than stretching out an olive branch, it is stretching out a rather harsh whip. We will be represented there by three MPs—two Conservative and one Labour. All I can say for the two Conservatives is that they were the leaders of all the resolutions that were defeated 2:1 in Strasbourg.

I put it to the Minister that it is not acceptable for him to say that it is up to parliamentarians to decide what to do. I am delighted to see the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, in his place, because I recall that when he and I tentatively proposed that it might be appropriate to visit the Russian Duma a few months ago, the Foreign Office came down on us like a tonne of bricks. Do not start saying that there is any freedom for Members and that the Foreign Office is not interested.

How does the Minister propose to put our relations with Russia on a better footing? Frankly, we are all on the same continent. I am not sure I would go as far as Gorbachev and say that we all live in the common European home, but we certainly are in a situation where Britain needs friends. When we leave the European Union we will be in an absolutely ideal situation for people to have a pop at us and decide, “Well, Britain won’t really have the solidarity of Brussels. We can cause them a bit of trouble with a bit of cyberwarfare or the like”. I put it to the Minister that it is in our interests to get together with our western European colleagues and try to get a modus vivendi with the Russians. This is a huge challenge facing PACE today.

Those are my two main points. I congratulate the Minister on still being part of the Government at 6.15 pm; I hope he will still be there at 10 pm. In the meantime, I look forward to him explaining how we will relate to Russia and how we will get a better accord with people for whom we can change history, but cannot change their geography. They are there and they will stay.

Photo of Lord Anderson of Swansea Lord Anderson of Swansea Labour 6:17 pm, 24th July 2019

My Lords, the noble Lord has drafted the Question very narrowly indeed. I shall follow him in not confining myself to the narrow part of it. I recall a programme on BBC Wales called “Wales at Westminster”. Every three months or so, every single Welsh MP had the opportunity to sum up the work of his or her colleagues. Woe betide any Member who omitted the name of one of his colleagues at the time. I fear this will be another parade of all the good work that the noble Lords, Lord Balfe, Lord Russell and Lord Blencathra, my noble friend Lady Massey and Lord Foulkes, the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, and others do there. I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, wanted us to parade the work of our colleagues or, it is fair to say, make an important contribution from mature experience in the Venice Commission for democracy-building. We all in the assembly have one great advantage: the English language.

In 2008 I had the honour to return to the Council of Europe after a gap of 50 years. I was the FCO adviser to the delegation in the early 1960s. Much has changed in the meantime. The assembly was no longer the consultative assembly but the parliamentary assembly. I hope that name change has some significance. New members from central and eastern Europe had joined, including, of course, Russia, but the core business of the council remained human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

We in the UK have a good record, blemished only slightly in terms of the court by the Hirst case on prisoner voting, where the House of Commons rejected a compromise. Happily, a compromise was at last reached. It is fair to say that the Conservative Government —at least the ERG—flirted with the idea of leaving the Council, partly because of the Abu Qatada case. However, had that taken place, leaving the convention would have meant leaving the Council.

Turning to some of the future challenges, one is the temptation of all parliamentarians to empire-build; another is relations with the European Union. When the Council was formed, Ernest Bevin, as Foreign Secretary, said: “I don’t like it when you open that Pandora’s box. All sorts of Trojan horses will come out of it”; one of his more famous quotes. From the start, the Council has been one of interstate intergovernance, not integration, in the stream which culminated in the European Union. Now, we need co-operation, and I hope that the European Union will join the convention, so far blocked by the European Court of Justice. We need to work together on democracy-building and partner with the European Union across the board on election monitoring and so on.

The other major problem is Russia. I disagree with the noble Lord on this—against the opposition of the UK delegation, but I am not so sure about the UK Government. We voted in June to readmit Russia, giving them the benefit of many doubts, despite their record in Georgia, Crimea, Syria, in interfering in democratic elections and, of course, the poisoning in Salisbury. I suspect that it was Russia’s financial contribution which played a substantial part, but it does harm the credibility of the Council of Europe as a forum for human rights.

My final question for us all is: how do we in the UK maximise our role in Europe, post-Brexit? Clearly, we must seek to use all institutions which bring us closer to Europe. This means NATO, and it also means bilateral relations and relations with cultural institutions such as the Council of Europe. We were there at the start and have played a major role. Surely, now we must examine how we can make our contribution to the Council of Europe more positive. For example, we can make a voluntary contribution to the work, because of the budgetary problems. We can drop, with the Italian ultra-right, the objection mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe. I hope that the Government are already examining how best we can take the Council of Europe more seriously and enhance the UK’s role in Europe more generally.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat 6:22 pm, 24th July 2019

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for initiating this debate. As he pointed out, many of the contributors to this debate are delegates to the Assembly. I rise as one of the few contributors who is not a delegate, and I will come back to that point in a moment.

As the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, pointed out, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe goes back 70 years. It is a precursor to the European Parliament. Unlike the European Parliament, it is not directly elected, although it is very much the reason why the European Parliament was established—that goes back to the idea of Pandora’s box letting out Trojan horses. The view when the European Coal and Steel Community was set up was that if the Council of Europe was to have an assembly, there needed to be a democratic element to this new European community as well.

Almost immediately, the European Parliament—or the common assembly, as it was known—saw delegates sitting together not as representatives of their own member states in national groups, but in parliamentary groups working on a cross-national basis. Gradually, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe did the same. Therefore, the British delegates do not sit as British delegates but as members of cross-party or parliamentary groups. This is important, because it enables representatives of the British Parliament to talk to fellow parliamentarians from other member states as parliamentarians. At the time of leaving the European Union—assuming that we do—the UK will remain part of the Council of Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Brexit or no Brexit, deal or no deal. This will be one of the fora that places greater emphasis and importance on parliamentarians speaking to their opposite numbers: to fellow European parliamentarians.

Clearly, the appointment and the role of parliamentarians is a matter for Parliament, not for Her Majesty’s Government per se. We have a new Prime Minister, and I am delighted that the Minister is still in his place at the moment—it is 6.25pm. We very much hope that he will remain there, not only because he is an excellent Minister but because we would, I suspect, like to conclude this debate today. However, I have some questions for him to send back to the Prime Minister and the other place. If our contribution to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is to be important, may I suggest that the Minister point out to the Prime Minister and his colleagues in the other place that representation is important and that in order to continue having the sort of influence the Prime Minister suggested this afternoon on the steps of No. 10 that he wants to have for global Britain, it will be important to send the right people to participate in the Assembly. That is important for parliamentary reasons and party reasons—but far be it from me to suggest who the Tories ought to send.

The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, pointed out that some parties are not represented in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The first party in the European Parliament to come together with its fellow parliamentarians was the Liberal family. At present there are no Liberal Democrats in the assembly because the appointments are made on the basis not of the election results per se or the composition of Parliament, but of the composition of the House of Commons. I wonder whether the Minister might consider this. After the next general election, which we are led to believe might be quite soon, the composition could be designed not on the basis of the number of MPs a party has but on its percentage vote in the most recent general election. That would perhaps be a little more representative. There may not be a Liberal Democrat representative in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe at present, but, my Lords, we will be back.

Photo of Viscount Waverley Viscount Waverley Crossbench 6:27 pm, 24th July 2019

My Lords, I concur in paying tribute to the Minister. His professionalism is illustrative of the finest traditions of this House, and we thank him.

The United Kingdom faces a raft of challenges globally. Engagement on mutual interests while confronting disagreements and upholding our values in a changing world order, where our ability to impact was once greater than it is today, is essential. Therefore, access, and keeping channels open, are critical. The UK does not agree with Russia in multiple areas. Events last year made political dialogue challenging. However, there are opportunities to advance co-operation: in the sciences, the arts, in education and in business-to-business discourse, with Prince Michael of Kent shortly to lead a British delegation to Moscow, to name but a few.

The effectiveness of sanctions is sometimes questioned. While I am an optimist by nature, I do not foresee Russia leaving Crimea any time soon, and eastern Ukraine remains an open wound. The respective chairs of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Russia and the UK inter-parliamentary group—the IPU—unequivocally countenance no dialogue between parliamentarians at Westminster and in the Duma. Late last week I received an unexpected call from Moscow, informing me that the head of the Duma is poised to extend an invitation. Joint membership with Russia of the Council of Europe is an enabler, thus removing impediments of a practical nature, as costs would be covered.

I note that thus far in 2018-19, the German Bundestag, Italian Senate, Finnish Parliament, Irish Parliament and French Assemblée Nationale have held inter-parliamentary discourse. The time has therefore come when a missing component of the relationship, that of parliamentarians broader than the Council of Europe, should be part of an engagement and possible reset process, while remembering that a bilateral relationship is not a single preserve but the sum of all its parts.

Photo of The Earl of Dundee The Earl of Dundee Conservative 6:30 pm, 24th July 2019

My Lords, I join others in thanking my noble friend Lord Balfe for introducing this debate. I will touch briefly on three points: the type of pattern which is evident when we look at the contributions of House of Lords Members to the Council of Europe; why this work has been of such high value; and the ways in which it should now be sustained and continued.

After the collapse of the Iron Curtain, a key challenge was how to assimilate the states previously within the Warsaw Pact. After 1990, all of these states were keen to join the Council of Europe. The pragmatic formula for it was put in place by Lord Finsberg when he became president of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly from 1991 to 1992. Straight away, ex-communist European states could be guest members without voting rights. However, to become full members they would have to be monitored over time. This ensured that before becoming so, they would have sufficiently met Council of Europe standards for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. It was a huge achievement.

Assisted by that achievement during the 1990s, the affiliation was able to grow to its present number of 47 states espousing Council of Europe values. Thus, while it includes the EU’s affiliation of 28 states, the council still outnumbers the latter by a further 19. In the 1990s, groups of three parliamentarians monitored the status of applicant states; in my case that of Croatia, whose current Foreign Minister many of us were delighted to witness being elected last month as the Council of Europe’s first Secretary-General from its post-1990 member states. Along with Lord Finsberg, Lord Russell-Johnston, who was parliamentary president from 1999 to 2002, is also now recalled with much gratitude by all new member states for his encouragement to them to play an active part.

The first Earl of Kilmuir, David Maxwell Fyfe—best known as Lord Chancellor from 1954 to 1962 yet also for his earlier skilful and even-handed conducting of the Nuremberg trials—in 1950 chaired the committee which drafted the Council of Europe’s central document: the European Convention on Human Rights. Over the 70 years since 1949, Members of this House have consistently made significant impacts. Today, limited time allows me to mention only a few examples concerning present and recent colleagues. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, visited Grozny several times and prepared until 2003 a number of reports on the war in Chechnya for the political affairs committee, which as a result was able to determine the parliamentary assembly’s position towards Russia at that time. The late Lord McIntosh of Haringey was the assembly’s first rapporteur on media freedom and created the Council of Europe’s platform for the protection of journalists. The position of general rapporteur on media freedom is now ably held by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes.

There is probably a corollary: that the Council of Europe’s consensual priorities of democracy, human rights and the rule of law will in any case tend to guide in a certain direction the energies and attitude of mind of its parliamentarians towards their work. Such priorities, transcending party politics as they do, instead inspire a collegiate and constructive approach. To a large extent, this applies at three levels: between Council of Europe parliamentarians internationally; within the Commons’ and Lords’ UK delegation itself; then cross-party between Members here, not least since working together cross-party and effectively is one of the proven qualities of your Lordships’ House in the first place.

Finally, in view of Brexit, the United Kingdom should be very grateful that our membership of the Council of Europe will nevertheless continue. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, has already observed, in that connection does my noble friend the Minister agree that we must become much more proactive in understanding what the Council of Europe has to offer, then in identifying new opportunities and carrying them out?

Photo of Baroness Massey of Darwen Baroness Massey of Darwen Labour 6:35 pm, 24th July 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for initiating this debate. I hope that at some point we will have a much longer one, as this is an important issue for the past, the present and the future. The UK was significant in the creation of the Council of Europe and continues to make a significant impression. Of course, whatever happens with Brexit, we shall continue as a member of an organisation which has been called the “democratic conscience” of Europe.

I am proud, along with notable colleagues, including many here today, to be a delegate to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. My experience, and that of colleagues, is that this is a two-way process. We give a lot to the Council of Europe and also gain a lot from it. Many of us have expertise and experience in particular fields, such as international affairs, equality of opportunity, health, disability, culture, freedom of the press, and so on. My own contribution comes from a passion for the rights and welfare of children. I have been fortunate enough to use this experience in producing recent reports on adolescent health and violence against children, which I presented last week at the UN in New York as part of discussions on the sustainable development goals. I now have two ongoing reports: on the abuse of children in sport, and on developing an initiative to promote the participation of children in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

What is the importance of all that we do in the Council of Europe? As regards children—I mean those up to the age of 18—this year is the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been almost universally ratified, including in the UK. It is important for us to be connected to international organisations, in Europe and globally, including at the UN. We have a very active all-party parliamentary group on the sustainable development goals, but conventions and declarations are an inspiration: a means by which nations can translate such declarations into local action in their own countries and communities. Local action must follow national and international action for it to be of any use, and so that it can be supported and evaluated.

Violence against children, as we know, continues to be a scourge across the world. Continued vigilance is necessary to protect children from this appalling threat. It is destructive and dehumanising. The Council of Europe has led campaigns and produced reports and decrees. Nations in Europe and in the UK have done the same, and we have contributed to those Council of Europe declarations and reports. The participation of children in our democratic societies and institutions is becoming standard practice in many strategies; for example, in our own NHS long-term plan, and in the panels of voluntary organisations and local authority panels. Many schools have school councils. I want to expand this participation in the Council of Europe, which already has an active youth division. This is why I want the participation of children to be common in the Parliamentary Assembly.

We work hard on the Council of Europe; it is not a holiday. We sometimes work from 8 am until 11 pm or later. I think that we are respected for our dedication and our contribution to discussion and decisions. I hope that this is recognised by the Minister and his colleagues. The Council of Europe is not well-known enough, either in your Lordships’ House or in another place. Can the Minister explain the mechanisms by which the Government keep in touch with the activity of the Council of Europe? I ask this for clarification not for those Members here today but for the information of this House and, perhaps, as a precursor to another debate.

Photo of Lord Blencathra Lord Blencathra Chair, Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee 6:40 pm, 24th July 2019

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Balfe on securing this important debate on a great British success story; namely, the creation of the Council of Europe and the contribution made by UK Members of both Houses of Parliament. The whole United Kingdom delegation is highly respected in Strasbourg.

I want first to thank two noble friends: my noble friend Lady Wilcox, who suggested that I apply to join the Council in the first place, and my noble friend the Chief Whip, who had the courage, if not the wisdom, to appoint me.

I can assure the House that every noble Lord on the Council serves on at least one committee and they more than pull their weight—I am amazed at the work they do. All the committees spend an awful lot of time drafting reports—far too many, in my opinion—and those reports get a fair bit of coverage, but they are not the most important thing that colleagues do.

The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, works on the Venice commission. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, is on the committee which selects judges for the Court of Human Rights—I am a part-time substitute for him on that committee. The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, had a role in a seminal report on culture and the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, was selected to lead the delegation to monitor the elections in Ukraine last weekend. Of course, Ukrainians had walked out of the assembly in rightful outrage at the wrongful decision to readmit Russia, but it was the first time that a Peer had been selected to lead an election monitoring mission. These tasks are much more important than the reports, although not many people know that, as Michael Caine might say.

Having a great interest in elections and how they are run led me to apply for election monitoring. Last year, facilitated by the wonderful staff who organise election monitoring, the Council allowed me to travel to many countries. I was part of the team which monitored elections in Azerbaijan, then Turkey, then the stunning Georgia, then that failing state Bosnia-Herzegovina, and then the presidential elections in Ukraine in March this year. I could not manage to do Armenia and I did not think that my other, little dinky wheelchair could cope with the snow in Moldova in February—so I chickened out of that one.

In all these missions, we published our findings on whether elections were free and fair using international standards. In nearly all cases they were not, Turkey being a perfect example of a stolen election. The irregularities on the day were minor, but the dirty work had been done in the two to three years beforehand: locking up without trial one’s main opponent, owning or controlling 90% of the media, abusing all state resources for the political campaign, and banning any candidate, except Erdoğan, from appearing in a photograph with the Turkish flag. Other countries monitored also had rich oligarchs using their wealth and power to sway the results.

Such election monitoring missions are a crucial part of the work of the Council of Europe. The missions help to ensure that the universal values upheld by the Council of Europe are more widely known and that European states are committed to democracy, the rule of law and human rights. I understand that, since 1989, the assembly has observed more than 140 parliamentary and presidential elections in Europe and sent more than 1,800 parliamentarians to monitor them.

Let me thank the brilliant team in Strasbourg who organise the election monitoring missions: Daniele Gastl, Anne Godfrey, Franck Daeschler, Chemavon Chahbazian, Bogdan Torcatoriu and Sonia Sirtori—and there may be others. Not only do they draft reports for us but they organise all the teams to visit polling stations, and I am particularly grateful that they go out of their way to find accessible polling stations for me to get to in my little wheelchair. There is one other person whom I should mention. A brilliant number-cruncher from Sweden, Anders Eriksson, stays up all night of an election and number-crunches the hundreds of reports that we send in during the day. By 8 am next morning, he has a detailed analysis of every single thing which went right and wrong. That is what makes our reports so authoritative.

Finally, let me thank Nick Wright, the long-suffering secretary of the UK delegation, and his team for their fantastic work in getting all 28 of us—not just Peers—to more than 100 meetings all over Europe, with all of us travelling at different times in different ways. That is another great British success story. I laud the work they do in helping us make the Council of Europe so successful.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour 6:45 pm, 24th July 2019

My Lords, the Foreign Secretary has been dismissed and a new one has not yet been appointed, so I think that, at this moment in time, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, is the Foreign Minister of the country. He has supreme power. I hope that he uses it wisely in whatever statements he chooses to make at the end of the debate. Perhaps I may say also that I hope that he is not a member of the next Administration because I am told that, to become so, one has to give a pledge of willingness to contemplate no deal, and I am sure that the noble Lord, whom we respect deeply, would not do anything quite as misguided as that.

I begin with a confession. I have never served on a committee or delegation of the House; I have always taken GK Chesterton’s view:

“I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities—and found no statues of Committees”.

However, I pay tribute to those noble Lords who have taken on this work, which I think is important. The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, alone demonstrates that, because the work of the Council of Europe in monitoring elections and seeing that they are free and fair across Europe is at the bedrock of what it means to have a Europe of civilisation and democracy.

The issue which it is worth us addressing in this debate, and on which I would welcome the Minister’s views, is what benefits we get from the Council of Europe. I am all in favour of its existence, being of the view that the best leader that this country has had by far in the past century was Winston Churchill, who saved Europe and inspired a democratic and free Europe by his own example. Of course, one of the great ways in which he did so was through the foundation of the Council of Europe, and he was its first chairman in 1948. In preparing for this debate, I read his speeches as chairman and they are phenomenal. However, the question as to what we gain is a big one. In two respects, the Council of Europe’s record is ambivalent. The challenge for us—I do not think that anybody thinks that it should end—is how we improve on it.

The first respect in which the Council’s record is ambivalent is that it is clear that it has not played much part in reconciling Britain to Europe in any meaningful way. Given what is happening to the country, with us leaving the European Union and having a greater froideur in our relations with Europe than at any time since 1945, we cannot honestly say that the Council of Europe has played much part in making us, or even our political class, more European. I am afraid that I have not read the reports to which the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, referred; all I can say is that they impinge hardly at all on the public debate in this country. As I listened to noble Lords, I wondered whether I could think of any contribution which the Council of Europe has made recently to the public debate in this country, and I can think only of one—which I will come to in a moment.

In his great first speech as chairman of the Council of Europe, Churchill said:

“It is impossible to separate economics and defence from the general political structure. Mutual aid in the economic field and joint military defence must inevitably be accompanied step by step with a parallel policy of closer political unity”.

That is the prospectus for the European Union, and it is the European Union which Britain is in the act of seeking to leave. Churchill’s own legacy and own injunction to the Council of Europe is not being honoured in Britain’s relationship either with the Council or with the other European institutions. That side is clearly very depressing.

It is therefore clear that the Council of Europe has had almost no impact whatever in reconciling Britain to Europe; it has enabled some British politicians to play a role, such as that of the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, in election monitoring and so on, but it has not had a more fundamental impact. A further question is whether it has played a role in instilling wider human rights, respect for human rights and democratic rights in the wider Europe. That question hangs on whether Turkey and Russia, which are the two most problematic members of the Council of Europe in terms of their respect for human rights and democracy, have a better record and whether we are able to make a more constructive contribution to engaging them in democracy and human rights as members of the Council of Europe than would be the case if they were outside and we were therefore able to be more critical. Listening to this debate, I am not sure what the answer is, and I do not think that noble Lords are sure. We have heard some noble Lords who think that we should engage more closely with Russia and others who think we should not. I am not sure. All I can say is that things are pretty desperate in both cases. We have near-dictatorships in both Turkey and Russia; there is only a figleaf of respect for democracy and human rights in both countries. However, the cause has not yet been completely lost, so maybe one can argue that it is worth continuing with the dialogue as members.

The one undoubted benefit in both cases, it seems to me, is the abolition of the death penalty. My understanding is that it is not possible to be a member of the Council of Europe and have the death penalty. If Turkey and Russia were not members of the Council of Europe, given what has happened to their politics in the last 10 and 20 years, they probably would now have the death penalty. If it is our judgment that that has been an achievement, then all the work of noble Lords in attending these endless committees from 8 am until midnight will have been worth while.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour 6:50 pm, 24th July 2019

My Lords, I join in the universal thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for securing this debate today. I declare an interest as a member of the parliamentary assembly. It is my third time. I was there in the 1980s and the early 2000s and here I am again. In fact, every time I get kicked off the Front Bench, the Government or whatever, I seem to find my way to Strasbourg.

The history and the role of the Council of Europe are not always understood—certainly not by the public and not by Parliament, as was said earlier. Nor by some of our colleagues as well: I shall try to work on my noble friend Lord Adonis. The Council of Europe represents this great post-war vision, which placed such value on human rights, democracy and the rule of law. It is not widely known that we in the parliamentary assembly, Members of Parliament from these 47 countries, elect the judges to the European Court of Human Rights. Would it not be good if we in the United Kingdom elected our judges? It is a democratic organisation—people are a bit doubtful about that, but it might be—and we elect the human rights commissioner as well. These three things are still the priorities of the Council of Europe.

I say to my noble friend Lord Adonis that the Council of Europe is the Carlsberg of European institutions—it reaches the parts of Europe that other organisations do not, such as Russia and Turkey. He did not mention Azerbaijan. The reason that Belarus is not a member is that it has the death penalty, so that is something, as my noble friend admitted. It also helps member states to recognise the steps they have to take, not just when they apply for membership of the European Union—which is important and we should remain; my noble friend and I agree on that—but it also presses them in the right direction. Its founding purpose is as relevant today as it was in 1949. The 47 countries still there spread all the way from Iceland to Turkey, from Portugal to Russia, including Switzerland and a range of different countries.

I shall talk briefly about what some members are doing. I have the pleasure of sitting on the culture, science, education and media committee—it was mentioned earlier—and I am the general rapporteur on media freedom and the safety of journalists. I am producing a report that will be published by the end of December and I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, that I had the great pleasure and privilege of attending a global conference organised by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It was the inspiration of Jeremy Hunt. It is a pity he is gone; he was a great Foreign Secretary. It was a fantastic conference, attended by 1,000 people down at Canada Water. I went along to explain the work of the Council of Europe and more than 250 people came to the session I spoke at. I explained to them that under Article 30 of our human rights charter, media freedom and the safety of journalists are essential. We have this platform, as described earlier, where 12 trade unions and human rights organisations put their information and it is publicised by the Council of Europe. It puts pressure on the countries imprisoning journalists to do something about it. It names and shames those countries.

We are doing something, but we recognise that we have more to do. My socialist colleagues are working hard. As someone said, my noble friend Lord Anderson has done a great deal of work on the legal affairs committee. My noble friend Lady Massey has done a great deal of work on violence against children, helped by my noble friend Lord Touhig. We must not forget my noble friend Lord Prescott, who was our leader with great distinction for many years. He recently completed a report on climate change, which included recommendations on how member states should oversee the implementation of the Paris agreement. I also acknowledge the work of the noble Lords, Lord Balfe, Lord Blencathra and Lord Russell, the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, and the noble Baroness, Lady Eccles. She cannot be here today, but I can testify that she does an excellent job on the committee with me. They make great contributions and the great contributions of the British delegation are really respected by the other countries. The way they react to us is very impressive. I have had the great pleasure of making contact with senators and members of parliament from all over. In fact, I am going to Italy tomorrow, as the guest of Senatore Roberto Rampi, to look at the working of the Italian Senate. Lots of things come out of this.

I hope we are not leaving the European Union—I hope we can stop that—but, although we anticipate leaving it, I want to ask the acting Foreign Secretary, as we understand he is now, to take this opportunity to make a commitment from the Dispatch Box that, whatever happens, we will stay in the Council of Europe. The work we are doing there will be even more important if we, sadly, come out of the European Union. It would be an absolute tragedy if the United Kingdom were not to participate fully in the work of the parliamentary assembly and the Council of Europe as a whole.

Finally, I echo the thanks of the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, to Nick Wright and the staff for the work they do to get us there and back safely. I also pay tribute to Sir Roger Gale. I never usually pay tribute to Tories, but he conducts and leads our delegation with tact and skill and involves all the parties. I thank my colleague Martin Whitfield, who is now leader of the Labour group and who works, as I do, with the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, who is about to ask me to do what I am about to do, which is to sit down.

Photo of Baroness Hooper Baroness Hooper Conservative 6:57 pm, 24th July 2019

My Lords, it is important to have this debate at a time when we as parliamentarians need, more than ever, a forum to meet and discuss issues with colleagues from other European countries. It is also important to point out that the Council of Europe has always represented the wider Europe, that it is good value for money and that we were founder members way back in 1948 when we were emerging from the Second World War. Incidentally, Turkey was also a founding member. When people question the appropriateness of Turkey being part of Europe, it is important to remember that.

There has always been confusion because the Palais de l’Europe, the seat of the assembly, is in Strasbourg. Subsequently, of course, that is why the European Economic Community decided to have its assembly, which eventually became the directly elected Parliament, in that city, which is so significant of the past divergence of Europe, and the wars fought in Europe. There was a lot of urging from Monsieur Pflimlin, whom many of us will remember as the very effective Mayor of Strasbourg. So we must thank my noble friend Lord Balfe for giving us this opportunity to clarify the role and the value of the Council of Europe.

I am no longer a member, but I served for 10 years in the Council of Europe—two five-year terms in fact. The first started in 1992, a very significant moment when most of the new democracies from eastern and central Europe were able to join the first international organisation it had ever been possible for them to join. I remember having a meeting in those early days in the Parliament in Budapest, which of course is very similar to our Parliament in its history and architecture. At that time, we had an additional role as members of the WEU, the Western European Union, which looked at the defence aspects of our relationships with other European countries.

I was fortunate to be asked to serve on the committee for education and cultural heritage, and eventually became its vice-chairman. We played a very useful role in tackling various issues affecting cultural heritage—the trafficking of stolen objects after war and so on. I also firmly believe that there is no better way to understand the point of view of someone from another country than to understand and appreciate their culture. It is worth mentioning that all members of the European Union first had to be signatories to the European convention on cultural heritage, as well as the European Convention on Human Rights.

I also served on the then economic affairs committee. It was valuable that that committee reported annually on the OECD, the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. It was the only public forum in which these international organisations could be monitored and their leaders questioned and called to account. I understand that that has been discontinued. That is a great shame; maybe it could be reconsidered.

The main focus has always been human rights. I was there when Russia was originally admitted as a member of the Council of Europe, and much the same considerations as have applied recently to its readmittance as a member were considered then. It was felt that it would be more useful and possible for Russia to right its human rights situation within the Council of Europe than outside it.

The other roles that have been mentioned, such as monitoring of elections, are vital. The Brits have always made a good contribution. All in all, I hope my noble friend will be able to reassure us that the United Kingdom will continue to make the most of our membership of the Council of Europe.

Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Crossbench 7:02 pm, 24th July 2019

My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for making this evening’s discussion possible.

I have had the pleasure and privilege of being a member of PACE since January 2018. This has been my first experience in my working life of working in cohabitation with professional politicians, and I would describe it as very educational. I am the only member of the UK delegation who is politically unaffiliated—I am the only representative of the 180-odd Cross-Benchers. I sit with the European Conservatives Group because that happens to be the political grouping of the Government of today. Should there be a general election and our new Prime Minister gets it wrong, as he is quite capable of doing, I will move across to whichever political grouping the next Government of the day happen to belong to. All I would say about sitting with the European Conservatives is that it is even more educational.

The UK, as has been said, was a founding member of the Council, and its work over the years has been and is highly regarded. However, it would be fair to say—and the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, referred to this—that Brexit has caused a considerable amount of baffled and rather genuine concern about our current democratic well-being. I now introduce myself in Strasbourg as Simon Russell from the “Dis-United Kingdom”, which breaks the ice diplomatically; people then feel free to ask the questions they are dying to ask, such as, “What on earth is really going on in your country?” I tend to respond, “How long have you got?”

I have the privilege of being a member of the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons, where it is an enormous privilege to work alongside other colleagues of very diverse political hues, ranging from extreme internationalist left to hard-line, and frankly slightly unpleasant, anti-immigrant nationalist right. The committee was able to visit Jordan in March last year, together with the noble Earl, Lord Dundee—or, as he is known in the Council of Europe, Mr Dundee, since our international colleagues find dealing with our titles somewhat challenging. We went to the largest refugee camp in Jordan, which contains no less than 80,000 Syrians. We also had an interesting experience when we met His Majesty the King of Jordan and our slightly overwrought and overcome chair kept addressing him as “Her Majesty”. The benefits of a British boarding school education followed by Sandhurst meant that he kept a completely stiff upper lip.

Helping emerging democracies evolve and mature, as the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, has mentioned, is a key element in our work, particularly since the break-up of the USSR. I had the privilege, along with the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, of being part of the PACE monitoring team for the 2019 Ukrainian presidential election. They elected a comedian. Our Conservative Party has followed suit. In both cases, it is too early to tell whether this will be a successful strategy.

To return to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, about what the Council of Europe is for and what we get out of it, I was reminded when he was speaking of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s famous phrase, “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country”. With our long traditions in this country of democracy, human rights, freedom and habeas corpus, one of the gifts we try to give to countries which have been less privileged in their history is the insight and benefit of the ups and downs of our journey in trying to establish that sort of democracy.

It is vital to maintain a focus and international dialogue which are above and beyond the mindlessness and sheer ill will which seem to feature in our often-intemperate political discourse. The Council reminds us of a higher purpose and enduring values and is a salutary antidote to the atomisation of the international order and the raucous sounds of testosterone-rich nation states. Standing up for and seeking to reinforce and extend human rights provides a moral compass and a universal theme which our continent and—goodness knows—our country, in its current rather febrile state, sorely need.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development) 7:07 pm, 24th July 2019

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for initiating this debate. The news this evening is that the three key departments of state dealing with international relations all have new Secretaries of State. Dominic Raab is now the new Foreign Secretary. I am confident that the noble Lord the Minister will continue with his duties; I know that he is considered a very effective Minister not only by his own party but by all sides of the House. The changes that we have heard tonight are massive: 16 Cabinet members are going, with those three key international departments dealing with diplomacy—the FCO, DfID and defence—all changing at a very critical time for our country.

Tonight’s debate highlights the importance of parliamentarians in international relations, an often-forgotten but important ingredient in creating a much safer world. It is certainly more effective in establishing a dialogue. It has been really important to hear from everyone tonight the significant contributions that our representatives make on a range of issues. That was particularly evidenced by the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, with regard to how we secure, defend and extend democracy. However, I was particularly glad to hear my noble friend Lady Massey refer to the sustainable development goals, which are an important element in making a safe and secure world. They are the responsibility of all countries, not just developing countries, and certainly the voluntary national review we have just undertaken was a key ingredient in showing the world that we take our responsibilities seriously and are not just preaching to others—it is something we have to do ourselves. Whatever happens in the next few months, we will continue to be members of what my noble friend referred to as the democratic conscience of Europe.

Noble Lords have focused this evening on the readmission of Russia. As my noble friend Lord Anderson reminded us, Russia has fomented conflict in Ukraine, illegally annexed Crimea, repeatedly violated the national airspace of several European countries and mounted a sustained campaign of cyberespionage and election interference. We should not forget the Litvinenko public inquiry, which concluded that in all probability his assassination had been carried out at the direct orders of Mr Putin. We also had the investigation into the Salisbury chemical weapons attack, which concluded that the Russian state was responsible. Since 2014, we have participated in sanctions to deliver a cost to Russia, to ensure that it realises the need to change its aggressive actions. However, as the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said, some interaction with Russia is preferable to none, or, as the former Prime Minister Theresa May put it, “Engage but beware”.

My noble friend Lord Adonis asked an extremely pertinent question about effectiveness and impact, which I will repeat. I have no doubt about our effectiveness and impact as regards building sustainable development and democracy. However, does the Minister believe that the strategy of engaging with Russia will be aided or damaged by expelling it from the Council of Europe?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State 7:12 pm, 24th July 2019

My Lords, I join all noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Balfe for securing this timely debate. Let us not forget that, in the year that the Council of Europe marks its 70th anniversary—amid celebration but also concern—there has rarely been a time so appropriate for such forthright questions, discussions and debate as we have had this evening. I also welcome this opportunity right from the start to reiterate the UK Government’s commitment to the Council of Europe, and to put on record my appreciation of your Lordships —the Members here this evening as well as other noble Lords—and their contribution to the Council of Europe.

I declare an interest as a former member of the delegation to the Council of Europe—one of the first roles I took on back in 2011. I value the incredible work that is done in the Council of Europe, which was excellently articulated by my noble friend Lord Blencathra.

It would be remiss of me not also to express my heartfelt thanks to noble Lords for their kind remarks on my role and my position. There was a moment, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, suggested, when I may have moved into a transitional position as acting Foreign Secretary. However, as we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that transition has now ended and a new Foreign Secretary is in place. We wish him well in his future role and endeavours. In doing so, I put on record my thanks to my right honourable friend Jeremy Hunt for the work he did as Foreign Secretary.

I also thank many Members here, not least my noble friend Lord Balfe and other noble Lords, who offer principled efforts as part of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe. They uphold the UK’s proud tradition as co-founder and a vocal proponent.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, asked: do we believe in the Council of Europe? Absolutely. To the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, on whether we will continue to be a member of the Council of Europe, the answer, simply and in short, is yes. As the Minister for Human Rights I have been proud to see the work that is undertaken, particularly in that important area, but I will also be candid and honest and say that much more can be done. I hope that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office continues to strengthen its work with the members of the delegation to see what more focus we can bring, and indeed how we can hold countries which are members of the Council of Europe to account with regard to any failings.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, also asked about participation within the Council of Europe as regards the nominations. As she articulated, the internal process of selecting members of the UK delegation is very much a matter for Parliament. She will also know that, while the UK delegation is appointed by the Prime Minister, that is with the agreement of the political parties. This procedure was agreed by the House on 22 May 1992. In 2010, the UK changed the UK’s “competent authority” from the Minister for Europe at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the Speaker of the House of Commons. This followed a direct request from the PACE secretariat, and that is the process that is currently followed.

Noble Lords also rightly asked about the Government’s belief in the importance of the Council of Europe. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, that it is important to the freedom of 830 million people, across 47 member states, and it is important for the future of the rules-based international order. We believe in the Council of Europe, because too often we witness a disregard for democratic structures that, while sometimes imperfect, provide incredible anchors to fundamental principles of human rights and the rule of law.

We have seen the wider work of the Council of Europe, which was articulated excellently by my noble friend Lord Blencathra, on the great example of the different missions which are undertaken. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, also heard the various contributions made by other noble Lords about the benefits of our membership. Last year, during the ministerial meeting in Elsinore, Denmark, I was pleased to see freedom of religion or belief and modern slavery become fastened to the organisation’s mandate quite directly. As the Minister responsible for those two issues as part of my responsibilities at the Foreign Office, that is the right additional focus for the council. Other current priorities are the defence of freedom of expression, tackling the threat of disinformation, and ending the barbarity of sexual violence in conflict. Indeed, for the new Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, this was a particular priority in her previous role as Foreign Minister of Croatia. I am sure that, among other noble Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, will be interested to know that the secretary-general will be focused on this issue of preventing sexual violence in conflict zones, particularly against young girls and children.

My noble friend Lady Hooper also rightly mentioned the importance of understanding culture. She put it aptly: to understand people, you have to understand culture, and the Council of Europe plays an important role in this respect. These demanding human rights objectives necessitate an organisation that works determinedly towards a more peaceful existence for us all.

The UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly plays an influential part in its work. The delegation itself is a rich example of cross-party co-operation. If I may take a moment, my noble friend Lord Balfe has worked with steadfast attention on the rule of law and the crucial question of the relationship between the European Union and the Council of Europe. I follow closely and have great admiration and gratitude for the work of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, on member states’ adherence to the Magnitsky sanctions—certainly an important area of focus as the UK seeks to legislate in this important area. I also pay tribute to the tireless endeavours of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, to end violence against children; my noble friend Lord Dundee’s scrutiny of the Council of Europe’s executive body; the important work that is being done on migration, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Russell; and the incredible work that is being done in the area of media freedom and the safety of journalists, which is certainly a priority at the Foreign Office—I pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, on this, and I appreciate his kind remarks about the recent media freedom conference.

I hope that that has underlined that the organisation is of paramount priority for the Government, demonstrated this month by the hosting of that conference. These efforts, and those of other noble Lords, are admirable.

The issue of Russia was rightly raised. The UK Government are clear that the recent return of the Russian delegation to the parliamentary assembly in no way legitimises Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea or its destabilising impact in the Donbass—and let us not forget that it was Russia that was responsible for the chemical attack in our own country, in Salisbury. While the issue of Russia’s membership remains for the parliamentary assembly, it in no way legitimises the issues that we will raise with Russia. The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, and my noble friend Lord Balfe talked of engagement. Yes, it is important to engage. As Minister for the United Nations, I know that Russia is a P5 member. We engage with Russia on important issues of security and will continue to do so.

Wishing the new Prime Minister well, let us not forget that in his tenure as Foreign Secretary, my right honourable friend visited Russia to try to engage directly and strengthen ties. The actions of Russia on our continent are extremely unfortunate and disappointing. We believe that Russia needs to be held to account, and we will continue to do that through international fora.

The Council of Europe’s budget was raised. For many years, the Council of Europe has struggled to focus its budget on corporate priorities. I tell my noble friend Lord Balfe that the zero nominal growth budget that we have applied is not unique to the Council of Europe; it is the policy that we apply to all international organisations to ensure greater financial discipline. However, let me be clear: we are only one of five major contributors to the Council of Europe and currently support the organisation’s work with an annual contribution of €33 million. This year, through both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the broader UK Government, we have provided additional funds to promote an important focus on issues of terrorism, reduce radicalisation—these have been particular priorities for me at the Foreign Office—dismantle cybercrime, strengthen civil society in Turkey and promote equality in Armenia and beyond.

The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, made an important point about the death penalty. This remains something that we propagate against, ensuring that we retain a focus on all countries around the world who continue to impose the death penalty. It is not humane and we will continue to campaign against it. Yes, the Council of Europe provides another forum to focus on that issue. This work must continue, but continuity demands that the Council of Europe is structured appropriately and continues to strive for positive reform. Therefore, I join my noble friend Lord Dundee, among others, in congratulating the new secretary-general, Marija Pejčinović Burić, on her recent election success. As many noble Lords have urged, the UK Government stand ready to help the new secretary-general stabilise the organisation and implement astute reform of its fiscal policy, operational procedures and the European Court of Human Rights caseload.

As I said, this debate has been both timely and appropriate. The noble Lord, Lord, Lord Foulkes, asked about the British Government’s policy. In my view, the Council of Europe has been and will continue to be important to the UK human rights and foreign policy agenda. Our exit from the EU will not diminish the UK’s engagement with the Council of Europe. Indeed, I share the view expressed by several noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that now is the time to further strengthen our work in this area. Equally, the UK is committed through the European Convention on Human Rights to improving the effectiveness of the court.

Since its founding statute—the Treaty of London here in 1949—our membership has provided a platform for government, parliamentarians, citizens and civil society to ensure that democracy thrives. As the Council of Europe reaches the age of 70, I assure noble Lords that we are again at a time of new beginnings: a time when we can and should ask questions about what more we can do in the Council of Europe; a time when we must stand unshaken in our belief in the universal and indivisible rights that underwrite our freedoms and democracies.